Have you ever wondered how we arrived at the modern book? When I say the “modern book,” I mean the form of the book: the outer shell that when you open the front cover, you’re instantly hit with that familiar smell of fresh ink and paper. Welcome back to Bookstr Trivia, an original series where we talk about interesting and bookish facts, and today, we’re exploring the history and evolution of book-making.
Book-Making in Ancient Antiquity
People across human history and civilizations always had the common impulse and desire to write things down. From the innocuous note-taking of daily life to the divine inscriptions of religious tradition and practice, people from the dawn of time invented a writing system to communicate with one another and write down things that were seen as significant to society. One of the earliest recorded written documents dates all the way back to Mesopotamia around 3500 BCE.
The ancient Mesopotamians invented an intricate writing system called cuneiform which they inscribed into clay tablets with a writing tool called a calamus. The Mesopotamians and other great civilizations in the Ancient Near East documented various subjects on clay tablets during the Bronze and Iron Ages: they wrote down laws, legal documents, business records, hymns, poetry, and religious literature to name just a few. Throughout the Bronze and Iron Ages, clay tablets were well used to document anything that people and society deemed as necessary and important, giving us a gleam into their lives, archives, and libraries.
The Invention of Paper
With the invention of paper, writing became easier and more accessible. The ancient civilizations of Egypt and China are known to be one of the first inventors and mass producers of paper. Paper made from the marrow of papyrus reed stems from a long and arduous process that emerged in Egypt around 3000 BCE. The first evidence of books made from papyrus paper is estimated to be from 2400 BCE and belongs to the collection of the Fifth Dynasty King, Neferirkare Kakai.
Alternatively, paper made from various materials like the bark of mulberry plants, hemp, and even old rags was thought to have been invented in China around the first century (1-100 CE) by Cai Lun, a eunuch from the imperial palace. The paper invented by Cai Lun is thought to be the prototype for modern paper.
The invention of paper led to a faster production of written documents and ultimately the bound book. Before the bound book, however, people wrote lengthy documents that were then turned into scrolls that were produced by various civilizations like China and Egypt which dates as early as 4000 BCE. The first bound book that we know of today as a “normal book” is said to have emerged during the Tang Dynasty around 1-99 CE called the Diamond Sutra. Bound medieval manuscripts were also standardized by monks who dedicated themselves to painstakingly handwritten, beautiful illuminated manuscripts that are well-regarded as valuable pieces of art today.
The Printing Press and Book-Making
Everything changed when the printing press was invented. The first moveable type was made from wood and is credited to China around 1000 CE. However, it did not revolutionize printing and book-making due to the arduous task of printing with wood. Alternatively, Goryeo (present-day South Korea) invented the metal moveable type called the jikji around 1200 CE, further producing the first book printed with the metal moveable type in 1377 CE.
The year 1439 would become one of the most significant dates in bookish history—the invention of the Gutenberg press by Johannes Gutenberg.
The invention of the Gutenberg press in Europe transformed the landscape of book-making and made an industry of paper and books. The first book that would be mass-produced through Gutenberg’s printing press was the Gutenberg Bible which was unsurprisingly a hit with the people. During this time, books of plays, religious texts, songs, and more were mass-produced and marked the Early Modern Period of Europe as one of the most important time periods that furthered the development of the publishing industry.
One thing that can be said is that people have always been bookish. We love reading and writing, recording down information that is important to us and this desire propelled an industry dedicated to the upkeeping of bookish culture.
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